Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Dragon Lady - Part 1

The Dragon Lady

She wasn’t exactly the grandmotherly type, unless you considered the witch in Hansel and Gretel grandmotherly. My Grandmother, with the emphasis on Grand, as in Grand Staircase, Grand Entrance, and Grand Mal seizure, was more commonly known in our family as the Dragon Lady. With blazing eyes, flaring nostrils, and a firey-hot temper to match, she was aptly named.

She would just as soon eat you for breakfast, as not, flossing her teeth with your hair and afterward relaxing by the crackling fire reading her version of the Bible---The National Enquirer. Pulling into her winding, gravel driveway, we would often hear her as she sat inside ranting at the TV because someone on it had royally hacked her off.

“You idiot! You don’t know what you’re talking about! Shut up! I hate you!” her pencil sharp voice would reverberate out to the front porch.

And Daddy actually expected us to want to go visit—that? I’d rather spend the day in the gas chamber or give up my spleen. Needless to say we weren’t rushing our happy little behinds out of the backseat to go inside and visit good ol’ Granny. Sometimes it’d take a full five minutes before we could pry Kim, my little sister, hands from the door handle.

“I don’t wanna, I don’t wanna. No, p-l--e-a-s-e,” she would plead every time as if going to the doctor for a shot. Daddy would drag her up to the front door, her blue sneakered toes digging deep, troweling through the dirt drive in one last desperate attempt to save herself.

Mama and I would follow silently behind single file, execution style. In those early days, I didn’t realize that Mama was just as scared to walk through that ominous front door. And I thought those claw marks in the dashboard were a result of Daddy’s horrible driving.

A Georgia former hunting lodge, the massive house was built of carved granite with a large castle-like circular turret right in the center of the second floor. Its four small round windows were stained glass. It should have reminded me of a church, but it didn’t. It looked more like a torture tower with gun portals. I’d never seen it from the inside. Of the homes’ twenty rooms, I’d been permitted to see only five.

A bronze falcon with sharp, outstretched talons hung suspended from a heavy chain above the red front door welcoming you inside. Her idea of a welcome flag. Several Georgian-style columns adorned the porch that ran the length of the house, filled with lots of heavy wooden and canvas furniture that I was never allowed to sit upon. Large dormer windows on each side of the second floor were barred and heavily draped, funeral parlor style. Surrounded by flowering magnolias, two ceramic lawn jockeys, an enormous fountain, and a plentitude of white wicker lawn chairs, it was a cross between Tara and The House of Frankenstein.

After unlocking the heavy door she would stand unmoving, leaning on her silver-headed cane dressed in a stylish woolen sweater and matching beret. Kim and I would reach up to give her the obligatory kiss, always wondering if she was going to bite, as we waited for her to lead us to whichever room she was holding court in that day. Like the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland, we waited for her to shout, “Off with their heads.”

She was a handsome woman, with beautiful porcelain skin and dancing brown eyes. Her figure was still there too, and she was quick to point that out, along with the fact she had all her own teeth, which I was convinced she sharpened every night. I don’t know how old she was. Nobody did. It changed all the time with her mood and the direction of the wind. I think when she finally passed away according to her death certificate she was younger than me.

“All respectable Southern women lie about their age,” she’d smirk, as if she was only forty.

During warm weather we’d follow her through the dark, outdated kitchen with its colossal rock fireplace, complete with black iron cauldron and into her airy bedroom. She’d lie--- Princess and the Pea style, upon her tremendous, four-poster bed whose mattress was over ten feet high. She used a stepstool just to get into it. Stretched out across the white linen comforter she’d puff on cigarettes, as she looked down at us seated at her feet, her terrified subjects.

Off to the side was a small bathroom that you had to ask permission to use. Sometimes it was granted… and sometimes it wasn’t. I can remember only using it once, but I was so nervous nothing would come out as she began screaming at me through the door not to touch anything including the toilet.

“What’s wrong with them? What’s wrong with those girls?” she demanded one afternoon.

Kim and I were hopping around on one foot doing the familiar “I gotta go right now” ceremonial dance.

“Make them stop that right now! They’re making a mess of my rug. It’s Persian you know!”

“The girls have to go to the bathroom,” Mama meekly replied. “Can they use your bathroom, please?”

“They should have thought about that before they left.”

As a result we got real friendly with the gas station attendant down the road.

During winter visits our destination was straight into Hell, the dragon’s lair---her den. Dimly lit, cold, and foreboding, the entire room was paneled, even the ceiling. Knotty Pine, I think it was.

“Hey, Mama, look. I can see my breath, I once announced excitedly, coming into the frigid room.

“Shhh!” Mama whispered afraid that comment might get the old dragon going as she

donned another wool scarf.

We never took our coats off. One never knew when you might have to make a run for it. Along the walls were stuffed heads. Bear, deer, bobcat, and even a black elephant with real ivory tusks. Gave me the creeps, especially their black, lifeless, marble eyes. I often worried that my head might be up there someday if I wasn’t careful.

The only light came from the twenty-watt bulb in the lamp next to her green chair, and a tiny coal fire in the fireplace. An eerie mist filled the room like a ghostly veil. Pall Mall One-hundreds… unfiltered. Thick as pea soup sometimes. All we lacked was the foghorn.

When she commanded us to sit, we took our seats silently while she proceeded to “light up” from her fireside chair sizing us up for the days’ bloodbath. The glowing red ember from her cigarette butt breathed and pulsated as she puffed, as if it too was alive and waiting, while a thin stream of smoke swirled from her nostrils. In true dragon form, she never exhaled from her mouth, ever. At the age of five, I realized Mama was right, my Grandmother was a dragon.

Mama sat in her usual red floral oversized chair by the fire across from Grandmother. Once there she NEVER moved. We were thankful. She was the only thing that stood between us and what we always believed might be our inevitable funeral. Unlike the three of us, Daddy would disappear for hours, sometimes for the duration of the entire visit, roaming from room to room, poking around forbidden areas leaving us to fend for ourselves. The Dragon Lady would periodically yell out from her chair, “What are you doing back there? Get back in here! Those are my things! Leave them alone!”

From our customary seat, an atrocious plum goose-down sofa Kim and I sat petrified, our frostbitten hands plunged deep inside our coat pockets. The couch made a “whooshing” sound as we descended to the floor. We rarely moved from our spot either. Couldn’t. Both of us trapped in the heavy seat cushion that folded in around you, enveloping us like meat in a taco. Dead meat.

Across from us was the infamous fireplace mantle. A hideous monstrosity of black marble and alabaster that reached the ceiling. On it was displayed pictures of her “preferred” loved ones--- at the moment. It was a family joke to find out from other family members who was in her favor at the time. We finally decided that it wasn’t necessarily who she liked the best, but who she hated less. It wasn’t unusual during a visit for one to instantly fall from grace and find his or her picture hurled into the burning fire below. I made the mantle only once, and that was because she found my prom date to be handsome.

“However did you ever manage to corral him?” she asked, snidely. “He’s so handsome. Looks like an old beau that once courted me,” she went on, smiling, seemingly reflecting on her past, as she studied the picture that I had just brought to her. “But what were you thinking wearing that dress? It makes you look fat,” she smiled, putting me on the mantle for the first and only time… in spite of my obesity.

Kim made the mantle a lot more often. Especially when she had her picture made with the then governor of Georgia, Jimmy Carter. She was up there for nearly eight months! It was a record true, but short lived. Even Ol’ Jimmy himself couldn’t save her when he became President and hacked Grandmother off one too many times. Before his term was even up, “poof,” they both went into the fire.

It is, however of no surprise, that Mama never made the mantle. Grandmother had on more than one occasion accused Mama of marrying into the family by way of the back door and reminded her of this every visit. She was worse than being from bad breeding. According to Grandmother Mama had no breeding at all.

“Melinda!” she barked, startling me to death as I sat preoccupied cupping my icy hands over my mouth and blowing on them to keep them warm.

Melinda is my middle name. She’s the only one who calls me that. That’s why I hate it. That’s why she uses it.

“Come here!” she yelled across the room, lit cigarette in hand, steaming coffee by her side as she extended her crocheted afghan covered legs straight out in front of her exposing her green slippered feet. She smirked. I hated that smirk. Her Grinch Who Stole Christmas smirk.

Now what? Would she cut me into tiny pieces and devour me? Shove bamboo sticks under my fingernails? Force me to donate a spare kidney perhaps. The day was still young.


Mellie Duke Justad

I am a native of North Georgia, where my claim to fame is being the longest reigning Possum Queen and most recently my latest accomplishment was being crowned Miss Cow Patty Cotillion. I have spent the last twenty-five years in South Florida or as I fondly refer to it as the “Land of the Southern Impaired.” I have recently completed my first manuscript,“Tales of a Possum Queen” and am currently working on a new book about the humorous, but challenging side of living with an Aspergers child and spouse. My work has appeared in the anthology, Writing on Walls III, The Storyteller, ParentingPlus, Smile… American Humor, and What’s Cooking.

When I am not writing I am actively engaged as a teaching artist in the Palm Beach County School system where I work with children in the classroom enhancing their education through arts integration. In my spare time I enjoy cooking, swimming, and traveling. I am active in the Autism Speaks organization and Special Olympics. I reside in Boca Raton with my husband, Todd, son Jack, and my very Southern dog, Miss Stella.